Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

There's a trust deficit, too

Mutual suspicion hampers relations between the United States and China.

Chinese President Hu Jintao's trip to Washington this week will likely be dominated by two issues: righting the vast U.S.-China trade deficit and avoiding a catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula. Both subjects matter. Both are manageable if we work together.

But there's an issue of even greater long-term importance: reducing the growing U.S.-China trust deficit.

China's decision to showcase its latest stealth-fighter technology on the eve of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' recent trip to Beijing underscored the extent to which China is attempting to counter U.S. power. If left unaddressed, widening mistrust will imperil the ability of the world's only superpower and its most rapidly rising great power to cooperate on vital issues, including global economic growth, weapons of mass destruction, and climate change.

It's been 40 years since Henry Kissinger shook hands with Zhou Enlai. U.S. engagement with China helped bring the Cold War to a favorable conclusion and made possible three decades of explosive Chinese growth. Yet despite these mutual gains from cooperation, many in both capitals today see the United States and China as being on a collision course.

Some Americans interpret Beijing's refusal to condemn North Korea's recent aggression, the vehemence with which it pressed disputed territorial claims, and its sustained double-digit increases in defense spending as evidence of hegemonic ambition.

For their part, some Chinese analysts see U.S. efforts to enhance alliances with Japan and South Korea, strengthen security ties with India, Vietnam, and Mongolia, support Taiwan's defense, restrict high-technology exports with military uses, and even encourage reductions in China's carbon emissions as proof of Washington's desire to encircle China and thwart its rise.

It's critical that leaders in both countries do not allow such suspicions, heightened by media and public opinion in both countries, to degenerate into demagoguery. China is not a revolutionary power, and the United States is not trying to contain it. The fact is that we need China, and China needs us.

Getting this relationship right doesn't mean papering over significant differences on thorny issues like human rights, but it does require not allowing disagreements to obscure positive developments. In fact, we need to consolidate and build on existing areas of cooperation.

The recent resumption of military-to-military dialogue is a critical step in building trust. I hope Presidents Hu and Obama will pledge to insulate these conversations from disruption. Especially in times of tension, our military officers need to be talking.

Obama will also be seeking cooperation to increase job-creating trade and investment. China made significant commitments to protecting intellectual property last month, but its undervalued currency remains a concern. Congress is growing increasingly impatient, and, absent sustained progress, it will likely take matters into its own hands.

Heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula will undoubtedly feature prominently during Hu's trip. The North's development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles undermines core Chinese and American interests in regional stability. Because China exerts outsize influence as North Korea's only ally, close U.S.-China cooperation on this issue is essential to restrain the North and facilitate the resumption of results-oriented, multilateral negotiations to bring lasting peace to a denuclearized peninsula.

The countries must also work together more closely on greenhouse-gas emissions and green technology. China made strides in recent negotiations to make its commitments more measurable, reportable, and verifiable. The coming summit can have a catalytic effect on efforts to achieve further breakthroughs in clean energy.

Combating extremism in Afghanistan is another transnational challenge that provides fertile ground for cooperation. Investing more in Afghans, rather than just natural resources, would be an important sign that China understands greater power comes with greater responsibility.

Finally, both leaders should take this opportunity to strengthen people-to-people, media, educational, cultural, and scientific contacts. Such ties help tamp down xenophobic forces in both countries.

The Obama-Hu summit will not produce a diplomatic breakthrough on par with Richard Nixon's entente with Mao Tse-tung. But reinforcing the consensus in both countries in favor of a candid, affirmative partnership is a worthy, attainable goal that will prove to be vitally important in its own right. If the two leaders seize this opportunity, the story of the next 40 years of U.S.-China relations can be one of genuine cooperation, robust competition, and spectacular accomplishment.